Skewing Religious History, or Why I’m Quickly being Alienated by “Cosmos.”

I, like many of my friends, greatly anticipated the restart of Cosmos by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I like many things Tyson has done in the past, and he has a reputation for explaining sound science in language average people can understand and enjoy learning about.

But he’s no historian.

His worst errors come in regard to historical religion and supernatural belief. If it’s not scientific, it’s foolish. He certainly has the right to believe that, but teaching it as fact is highly problematic, not to mention somewhat off-topic on a show about science (particularly from a guy vocal about religion not being taught in science classes).

Equating Supernatural Views with Ignorance

Episode three, titled “When Knowledge Conquers Fear,” opens with how early people turned to the sky for meaning about life, and when things changed in the heavens – such as with a comet – it was taken as a warning of catastrophe.

This is, according to Cosmos, because they had no way of knowing what comets really were. Thus, supernatural explanations and fear come from ignorance. Understanding of comets has dispelled that fear.  It sets up an ugly dichotomy where the supernatural is ignorant and fearful, while scientific knowledge is enlightening, completely ignoring the fact that plenty of people find both science and the supernatural to be sources of knowledge.

When you discuss history and culture, you need to check your bias as the door. I don’t believe that comets foretell the future either, but I’m not going to belittle the belief when discussing them.  Ancient people worked within a different paradigm than we do, and people in the future will eventually develop additional paradigms.

Sir Isaac Newton

The same episode spends a great deal of time discussing Sir Isaac Newton. You don’t need to exaggerate anything about Newton to show him as one of the greatest thinkers of his time. His contributed immeasurably to science.

But Cosmos wants us to believe that Newton had to struggle against having “one foot still in the Middle Ages.” It’s the 18th century, folks. Even England, always late to the game before the modern era, has been out of the Middle Ages for 200 years. Newton is even past Renaissance. Newton’s feet were firmly planted in the Age of Enlightenment.  Europe simply wasn’t thinking in the 18th century like it was in, say, the 14th century.

Newton’s laws of gravity and motion revealed how the sun held distant worlds captive. His laws swept away the need for a master clockmaker to explain the precision and beauty of the solar system. Gravity is the clockmaker. – Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Cosmos

Tyson doesn’t understand history. Nor Newton.

According to newton, gravity powers the clock, but the clock was created by God. In fact, the clock periodically needed adjustment by the clockmaker.

Yet Tyson condemns connecting God with the creation of the universe as “the closing of a door. It doesn’t lead to other questions.” Yet Newton’s theological and scientific beliefs were inherently intertwined. Tyson states Newton is “a God-loving man. He was also a genius,” as if it was odd to be both.

Isaac newton's Philosopher Stone Diagram
Newton’s diagram of the philosopher’s stone.
Division of male and female qualities paired with qualities of the four humors.  The organization into groups of seven corresponds to the seven “planets”: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn

He also mentions Newton’s belief in Bible code and alchemy, a fact often overlooked. However, he immediately notes that nothing came of those studies.

Alchemy is not about creating silver and gold, as Tyson states. That is a metaphor used by alchemists. The alchemy of Newton was theological, spiritual and philosophical, so whether anything came of those studies is not measurable. It is also one of the things that encouraged his studies of the natural world, as it did many proto-scientists of the time period.

Giordano Bruno

The first episode of Cosmos had some great material. I particularly liked describing the history of the universe in terms of a one-year calendar, in which all of human civilization can be packed into 14 seconds on Dec 31. Some religious conservatives have complained that the episode removes the awesomeness of creation, but, personally, it left me more in awe, not less. My awe just happens to not involve a conscious, creative force.

But the episode also provides a biography of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600. Bruno was an early supporter of the idea of an infinite universe, quite at odds with the model of the day but quite in line with modern scientific understanding. That’s neat, the same way that Newton could quantify gravity everywhere is neat.

But it isn’t what got Bruno executed. Bruno was a pantheist. He didn’t die because he believed the sun was a star or the earth revolved around it. He died because he denied the trinity, believed that the universe and God are one, denied the virgin birth, and rejected salvation through Jesus, among other things.

As stated on Abby Ohlheiser on The Wire:

I’m hoping, and I think the show’s writers are hoping, that viewers will understand the Bruno story not as a condemnation of religion, but as a redrawing of the boundaries between faith and science. Instead of putting the two in opposition, the show wants to place faith, curiosity, wonder, and questioning — what if my God is too small? to paraphrase Bruno — along with science against enforced ignorance. (What Does Neil DeGrasse’s Cosmos Say about Religion?)

Really? This is merely about a redrawing of boundaries between faith and science, even though the show admits that Bruno was not a scientist? He talked in philosophical and theological terms and had no scientific method backing up his conclusions.

Again, religiosity was not the closing of a door: Bruno imagined an infinite and magnificent God could only create something equally infinite and magnificent.

In a recent internview, Tyson also tries to paint the story as religiously neutral:

“The issue there is not religion versus non-religion, or religion versus science,” Tyson said. “The issue is ideas that are different versus dogma.” (Neil DeGrasse Tyson Shows Science And Religion Can Co-Exist In ‘Cosmos’)

That’s a hard explanation to swallow considering the story starts out telling us that:

only one man on the whole planet who envisioned an infinitely grander cosmos, and how was he spending New Years Eve of the year 1600? Why, in prison, of course. – Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Cosmos

Again, I repeat: his views of the cosmos are not what landed him in prison. And to presume great thinkers “of course” end up in prison is just plain ignorant.

It continues by explaining that Bruno lived in a time where there was no freedom of thought. Seriously, 16th century Italy? More than 200 years after the birth of the Renaissance in that very locale? There were all sorts of new thoughts flying around. Yes, there were people being put to death for certain thoughts, but “no freedom of thought” is a gross exaggeration.

And all this on a show about science in a story about a non-scientist.

More commentary on Tyson’s take of Giordano Bruno


Cosmos is great from a scientific perspective (at least to a lay person like me), although I do wish it would stop baiting the Creationists.  Tell me science for the sake of science, not to disprove people who already have no legitimacy on scientific subjects.  It’s perspective on history, however, begs for a better fact-checker.


  1. Thanks for this post! I really want to enjoy “Cosmos” too, because I was so greatly influenced by Carl Sagan’s version. Carl understood the connections between science and supernatural philosophy. He understood that philosophy gave birth to science. I have no doubt he understood Alchemy and it’s true meaning. I don’t see that with Degrasse-Tyson or the writers of this “Cosmos”. However, Sagan used a term to describe the religious, the philosophers and the supernatural believers that wound up lumping them all together—Mystics—and Degrasse-Tyson has run with it. Even Sagan denounced the mystics, no matter who they were. Socrates and Plato? Mystics who ruined the development of science by adding the supernatural element. Pythagoras? Same thing, right?
    In trying to fight against Church dogma, some scientists make a fatal mistake in equating philosophy and Alchemy with religion, as you said. The idea of doing ‘The Work’ of Alchemy (or other such practices) is beyond their comprehension, so of course they can’t see how the inner journey Newton took was the very thing that made him capable of comprehending his scientific work and making the connections. It was the very thing that expanded his consciousness, in the same way it happened to the classical philosophers.
    I loved that the show used Alchemical imagery. The sad part is the lack of understanding it’s true meaning. It’s fascinating that the very point they’re trying to make, is hidden inside that symbolic imagery. As you said, by claiming Newton struggled with having a foot in the Middle Ages is to completely misunderstand how Newton came to his phenomenal conclusions.
    Lastly, I find it interesting that Sagan considered the Hindu creation mythology as the closest to what science has revealed so far. If I understand correctly, many mystic traditions can trace their origins back to that in some way. Thanks again for your postings!

  2. It’s likely that in the Newton Philosopher’s Stone picture, the planets are actually a metaphor for the 7 alchemical metals: gold- Sun, silver – Moon, mercury – Mercury, copper – Venus, iron – Mars, tin – Jupiter, and lead – Saturn.

    1. Author

      They pretty much are one and the same. The metals were understood to gain their qualities from the planets.

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